Kids can be cruel. Name-calling, teasing, hitting, lying, and exclusion are pretty common experiences for children at school, with one study finding 1 in 4 Australian students are being bullied frequently. In today’s digital age, young people must also contend with new forms of bullying with the rise of Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms seeing an increase in cyberbullying.
Bully victims are at higher risk of suicide, depression, poor performance and low self-esteem. But what framework do our schools have in place to tackle this ongoing societal issue? We explore the current state of play in Australian schools, share a story from one victim of bullying and look offshore to see what we can learn from other countries.
Bullying in Australian schools
In Australia, there is no consistent or mandatory approach to manage bullying in schools. On a national level, the National Safe Schools Framework includes a vision with guiding principles that is used as a reference only in state education departments. However, at a state level there are a range of policies addressing the issue - none of which appear to be uniform or obligatory for schools to follow.
Maurice Blackburn Principal Dimi Ioannou, who has represented many bullying victims, said schools have a responsibility to keep children safe.
“Our schools need to have an adequate bullying policy in place, provide satisfactory supervision and must take action when bullying is reported,” says Ms Ioannou. “The only practical way to approach this is to implement mandatory guidelines of national consistency to help protect our children.”
How an inner Melbourne school failed their student
Cath King attended a private school in Melbourne’s inner east. She was the victim of severe bullying that spanned for approximately 4 years. Repeated exclusion, name calling, physical attacks, humiliation, and cyber-bullying led the 14 year old to a life of depression, anxiety, eating disorders and self-harm.
“Every day was a mental put-down. School was just the worst place to be. It was awful”
The girls would call her ‘fat’, ‘ugly’ and ‘disgusting’. They would often take Cath to an area of the playground known as “the pines”. Cath would be made to sit on the ground and open her mouth, whilst a group of girls would put rubbish, dirt and bark into Cath’s mouth.
Cath and her mother, notified the school of the bullying on numerous occasions. Despite multiple phone calls and one-on-one meetings with teachers, the school failed to intervene to stop the bullying.
“I became bulimic, I’d spend all weekend throwing up, making sure that I’d lose weight so I’d fit into smaller clothes so the girls would stop bullying me.”
In year 8 Cath was pulled out of school as the mental torment became too much.
“After I left school, I became withdrawn…I couldn’t shower, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t get out of bed because I was so mentally unwell from what had happened at school. It was a mental state.”
Bullying has serious harmful effects that can last a lifetime. Sadly, like Cath, many young children in our schools are the victims of bullying and our current framework in schools is not adequately addressing the problem and protecting our children.
“If you’ve made a report to your child’s school about bullying, the school should check into the welfare of your child and ensure that reasonable steps are taken to prevent the bullying,” says Ms Ioannou. “Children have the right to be safe, and more needs to be done in this space to protect them.”
Lessons from Scandinavia
In 1983, three adolescent boys in northern Norway died by suicide. After reports that all three boys were victims of severe bullying by peers, the country's Ministry of Education initiated a national campaign against bullying in schools. As a result, the first version of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program was developed.
The Program, which has been implemented on a large-scale basis in schools throughout Norway, aims to provide a different structure to school classrooms to discourage bullying and reward more helpful behaviours. School staff are largely responsible for introducing and implementing the program.
In Finland they have implemented the Finnish KiVa anti-bullying programme that uses virtual learning methods and focuses on the bystander as a crucial player in the defence against bullying behaviour.
Lessons from the UK
The UK government have laws that require schools to have systems in place which encourage good behaviour and prevent all types of bullying. It is part of the school curriculum. The UK philosophy has generally been not to adopt or impose a specific programme to stop bullying, like in Norway or Finland, but rather to make a range of options and resources available for schools to choose best practice. For example:
- A requirement that schools have measures in place which encourage good behaviour and prevent all types of bullying.
- A requirement that all reasonable steps are taken by schools to ensure the risk of harm to children’s welfare are minimised.
- A requirement for independent schools to publish and implement policies on preventing bulling.
- Detailing legal duties with which all schools need to comply.
Friday 15 March is National Day of Action against Bullying and Violence (NDA).
If your child is being bullied (or you suspect they’re being bullied), notify the school as soon as possible. If the bullying is severe, and particularly if your child’s safety is in danger, consider contacting kids helpline or the police.